Bipartisan Call for Food Safety Fixes
(New York Times, DC)
By GARDINER HARRIS
A parade of Democratic and Republican lawmakers promised at a House hearing on Wednesday that they would work to pass a broad array of changes in the nation’s food safety system, although they disagreed on crucial details.
Among the sharpest areas of disagreement are whether to split the Food and Drug Administration into two agencies and whether to finance increased safety inspections through fees on industry or through general appropriations.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he would oppose splitting the F.D.A., at least for now.
“Our first goal should be to address the problems that plague this program where it currently sits,” Mr. Waxman said. “After we finish that job, we can consider whether a reorganization is necessary.”
But Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado and vice chairwoman of the commerce committee, said she continued to advocate a separate agency to oversee food safety.
The differences are not partisan. Republicans at the hearing said they, too, supported strong reforms.
“On food safety, there is no daylight between Henry Waxman and Joe Barton,” said Representative Joe L. Barton of Texas, the senior Republican on the commerce committee.
The House has held nearly two dozen food safety hearings over the last year, focusing on contamination in jalapeño peppers, peanut butter, pet food, seafood, spinach and tomatoes manufactured both in the United States and abroad.
A panel of experts from consumer groups and the industry largely agreed that broad changes were needed. For industry, the growing number of food-poisoning incidents have become enormously expensive. Thomas E. Stenzel, chief executive of the United Fresh Produce Association, said an entire crop of spinach was discarded in 2006 during a salmonella outbreak.
“In fact,” Mr. Stenzel said, “we now know that the only contaminated product came from one 50-acre farm, packaged in one processing plant and only on one production shift.” Yet spinach sales continue to suffer, he added.
In statements, members of the commerce committee’s Subcommittee on Health agreed that the F.D.A. needed greater legal authority and more financing.
Of more than a half-dozen overhaul bills that have already been filed, most would give the agency the power to require that unsafe food be recalled; at present, most such recalls require a manufacturer’s agreement.
Members also largely agreed that the traceability of foods needed to be improved so the source of any contamination could be found quickly, and that food manufacturers must write and carry out food safety plans.
Whatever the details, the lawmakers said, Congress needs to take action soon.
“We have before us one of the finest messes in history,” said Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, who accused both Congress and the White House of allowing the F.D.A. to become incompetent.
“As a result of the failure of giving Food and Drug the resources it needs,” Mr. Dingell continued, “people are dying.” 3-12-09
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